Ending the Blame Game of Higher Ed: Cheryl Oldham of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Shares How Communities Can Come Together to Make Higher Ed More Valuable
Over the past 10–20 years, higher education has seen quite the transformation.
Now, as digital takes over and the need for 4-year-degrees is being called into question, many are starting to ask: What does the future of higher education look like?
Cheryl Oldham, Senior Vice President at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, counters those questions with a popular conversation that is rising across the country: what is the value of higher education?
“Why did we go get a higher education?” asks Oldham. “Are we prepared for success beyond that degree?”
Formerly, Oldham acted as Assistant Secretary of Higher Education in the George W. Bush Administration. She notes that even since that time, much has changed when looking at higher education, particularly when it comes to affordability.
“There’s just that issue of affordability, certainly, is still one that I think that we struggle with and will continue to struggle with,” she says. “Just talking about debt without talking about the quality, or the value of things that you’ve bought, that has put you in debt, is not as useful.”
Oldham hopes that the “blame game” around higher education will come to a close, once communities start working together.
“We need to have the business community there, and the business community and K through 12, actually, represented on that commission. And we need to all come together and acknowledge there’s no value in just pointing the finger at each other in this sort of circular blame game,” says Oldham.
Listen in to our interview with Cheryl Oldham to learn more about the conflicts around higher education today, how the sector is constantly changing, and what you could possibly expect to see in the future.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times, and today we’re speaking with Cheryl Oldham, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Cheryl is a keynote speaker at our upcoming work+EDU event. Cheryl, can you start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation?
Cheryl Oldham: Absolutely. Thanks so much for inviting me to your conference and to do this podcast today. As you said, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, senior vice president. I oversee the division within the foundation known as the Center for Education and Workforce. That is basically the place in the Chamber Foundation where we look at, how do we make sure we have a competitive workforce for the future? And we really look at, sort of, system change initiatives and programs. Basically from early education childcare, through K through 12, through workforce development and higher education. So we work along that pipeline. And it’s just you know really recognizing I think and understanding that there is no one silver bullet to this issue of sort of the skills gap. And how do we make sure that we have an educated and skilled workforce.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So you mentioned higher education. And I want to mention that you were the acting Assistant Secretary of Higher Education in the George W. Bush administration. And of course, since then, we’ve seen a lot of changes in higher ed. We’ve seen issues with, you know, student debt. We’ve seen, you know, some of the smaller, especially private liberal arts colleges having challenging times — especially here in the Boston area, but other places as well. What do you think has brought these major shifts in higher education?
Cheryl Oldham: I did hold that position in the Bush administration. And before that, I actually had the privilege to run the secretary’s commission on the future of higher education. We had business leaders, and the idea really was to say, what does the higher education system of the future look like, in terms of, these…really focused on these three areas.
Cheryl Oldham: So, it was a fascinating opportunity for me. It was a great group of individuals. And we produced a report called “A Test of Leadership.” And then that sort of set the stage for the remainder of the Bush administration’s focus or agenda around higher education. And I think it also just at the time, you know, we really hadn’t had something like that. You know we had “Nation of Risk” back in the 80s. We did have “A Gathering Storm.” But we hadn’t really had sort of this like, what does the future of higher education need to look like?
Cheryl Oldham: And so we delved into a lot of tough issues. It ended up a report, I think, that people even to this day will talk to me about, and sort of hearken back to, and think about where have we come now, in those, gosh, 12 years since that report was released. But I do think that it set us on a bit of a path to think a little bit more about accountability in higher education. You know, accessibility was something that a lot of folks were focused on, but I think really have even more so since then, focused on how do we make sure all students have access to a post-secondary education. Have rigorous academics at the high school level, and to have access to post-secondary, because we know that provides a path to opportunity in this country. And then just this issue of affordability, certainly, is still one that I think that we struggle with and will continue to struggle with. And, you know, the cost of higher education really is leading us to this conversation of, what is the value? And I think that’s a really important conversation to have.
Cheryl Oldham: Really, just talking about debt without talking about the quality or the value of thing that you’ve bought, that has put you in debt, it’s not as useful. Right? You need to talk about those two things together. And I think you do start to hear from both the folks that have gone through higher education. Also maybe what we’d like to say as customers on the other end, in the sort of business community. And the students to say, what did we get for that. And, are we prepared? Why did we go get a higher education?
Cheryl Oldham: Are we prepared for success beyond that degree, and maybe hearing a little bit of dissatisfaction. And so then thinking, is this the four-year degree, is that sort of traditional pathway the only viable pathway for folks to have a really great career, or a great job, a family-sustaining wage? And I think that there’s just a much more robust conversation around all of that now. And certainly thinking about the future of work and just, you know, understanding how much disruption there is in work and skills. And what is it going to look like in one year, five years, ten years out? I think coming from an organization like the chamber, we would say, you know there’s got to be more collaboration. There needs to be more connectedness to the employer community and the business community. And I know that’s not always the popular position to take in higher education circles.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So now, you’ve seen both sides of the, I don’t know whether to call it a divide, or both sides of the card. But you have seen both sides. So what you see as the biggest challenge for those two communities, for higher education and employers, in terms of education and the workforce? What do you think the biggest challenge is, and what do you think the biggest opportunity is as well?
Cheryl Oldham: This is something that I know that, you know, with Secretary Spellings vision, when she created the commission, was to say, you know, “If we’re going to have a commission about the future of higher education, we need to have the business community there.” And the business community, and K through 12, actually, represented on that commission. And we need to all come together and acknowledge there’s no value and just pointing the finger at each other in this sort of circular blame game. Right? The business community saying, “I’m dissatisfied, higher ed, with what you’re giving me.” And higher ed pointing the finger at K12 and saying, “You’re not giving me students that are prepared.” We all have a role to play here.
Cheryl Oldham: And so, you know, that really for me translates over into the work that I do now. And so we work very closely with business communities, state and local chambers, all over the country, employers directly. And we try to say to them, there’s a really important role that the employer community needs to play in this whole idea of closing the skills gap and partnering with education and workforce providers. And that is to say, it’s not enough. We certainly can’t just sit back and point the finger and say, “You are not giving me what I need.” We need to do the work on the front end before we come to these relationships and these partnerships. And that’s to say, what are our competency and credential requirements? Who are our preferred providers? Where do we get our best talent?
Cheryl Oldham: There’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done within the employer community to really figure out, what do they need? How do they signal it? How do they talk about it? How do they come to those partnerships really ready to communicate exactly what they need? And then to partner with those organizations. And then on the other side, the education and workforce partners really need to be willing partners to the employer community. And so I think sometimes that’s the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. Partnering isn’t always easy. What we see oftentimes is a sort of, “Oh, I partner with the business community.” Or, “I’ve got a couple employers on my advisory board.” That may be a little bit of checking a box, to say that we have quote “engaged the business community.”
Cheryl Oldham: The other thing is, sometimes we’ll hear from higher education, “that’s not our job. Right? This is not our job. It’s not to train your employees.” So there’s got to be a willingness on both sides to come together. And so we have at the Chamber Foundation for the past four years, created an initiative called “Talent Pipeline Management.” And it was to arm and support the employer community to be effective partners in those business-education partnerships. And so we looked at supply chain management. We looked at lessons learned from supply chain management. And how do we apply those to human capital, and to talent pipelines? And so we developed a set of six strategies. We’ve highlighted it in seven communities. We’ve set up the academy to then train the employer collaboratives on how to use these strategies. Now we’re implementing industry-based academies and state-based academies. And we’re seeing results.
Cheryl Oldham: And it really is this idea of, there’s a lot of work that employers need to do. You know, you hear this, occasionally. I think more than occasionally. I hear it a lot. Is to say, we just need employees to be really good…What exactly do you want? What do you need? Tell us what are the skills that you’re looking for? And so TPM really is that training — we’ve developed a curriculum around it — that really helps the employer community to do this well. And so it’s not easy stuff. I mean, it’s not for the faint of heart. And it’s certainly not something that is going to be solved overnight. But I think there’s really a willingness now. So that’s where the opportunity comes. There’s certainly a willingness of the employer community to do that work on their end. And I see more and more of that willingness on higher education side as well.
Hester Tinti-Kane: I do wonder, actually, with the tight labor market, whether that makes employers more willing to spend more time and invest more of their resources in this sort of work, like you’re talking about with your initiative—the talent pipeline management initiative. I mean, one of the things that struck me on your website there was, you know, looking at your clearer signals paper. The one you guys released last fall. And there’s an interesting quote about, you know, some saying that the skills gap might actually be a communication gap. And are employers working hard enough to clearly communicate what is entailed? And what are the skills, what are the competencies that are needed to perform a specific role? But that does take time.
Cheryl Oldham: Yeah. Well, and that is a new project. So we came out with that paper back in the fall. And we just recently announced it formally, that project, funded by Google dot org, J.P. Morgan Chase—and we’re soon to have an announcement on a couple of more partners, funders of that work. But you’re right, the idea is that there’s certainly a skills gap. I mean, I don’t want to argue that. I know that there are people that say there’s not a skills gap out there. I know it, because I hear it from employers directly that say, “I can’t find people who have the skills.” Especially in a lot of these middle-skill areas, which is not a term that I love. But it’s the one that’s used. But in the trades that certainly have this issue.
Cheryl Oldham: But there’s also an issue, as you alluded to, and as we’ve talked about in the Clear Signals paper, that in addition to a skills gap, there’s also an issue of, in some instances, we’re just missing each other. So, we are putting job postings out on the web. We have HRIS and applicant tracking systems that try to then cull through resumes, responding to that job posting. And they’re doing sort of the work of trying to figure out, you know, to sort through, who might be eligible, or to be considered for the job? And so they’re reading these documents and trying to scan and figure out, you know, are the words matching up. And I think there’s there’s a real issue there that in some cases is not allowing us to connect. And so the project that we announced recently is really going to try and tackle that. We’re going to pilot it with employers who want to work with us on this issue. And we’re going to try to get better about how it is we talk about the skills, and the competencies. And be clearer, as the paper suggests. We need to be clearer in our signaling, so that those that are the job seekers know better what we’re looking for and we’re able to connect to one another.
Cheryl Oldham: It’s interesting too, as you said, the tight labor market—the most recent data that came out was six point seven million job openings and six point one million people—job seekers. So, we have more jobs than we have people. There’s lots of things going into that. But we’re trying to, you know, do what we can do to tackle a couple of them.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, you know, you mentioned part of the work in this communications area from employers when they are defining what is needed to fill a specific role. You’ve used the word “competencies.” So, we hear a lot about that. Especially in education you hear competency-based education, and things of that nature. I mean, what do you think is beneficial about this movement around competency-based education? Is it beneficial for the workforce? And if so, in what way?
Cheryl Oldham: It’s certainly complicated. And I don’t want to suggest that it’s easy by some of the things that I say. But I think, you know, that sometimes employers think, we need a set of skills. Like if you can prove to me that you can… If we could assess, here are the skills that I need. Here is an assessment to prove that you have them. Why are we still stuck in sort of this way of delivering education and training that we have done for so long? That looks at seat time and — like what does that have to do with whether or not you have mastered material or skills?
Cheryl Oldham: So this idea of competencies I think is just attractive to folks that want to say, “look, if you can prove to me that you know things, and that you’re able to do things—knowledge, skills—why do we need the sort of traditional route or a bachelor’s degree?” For the employer community now, and so this is something that we’ve talked a lot about, and are sort of trying to tackle through TPM, is this idea that, you know, a bachelor’s degree is kind of the sorting mechanism. Right? For employers when they—we get criticized a lot because there’s this whole idea that we are responsible for this idea of credentialing. Right? Everything needs a bachelor’s degree. Do we really need a bachelor’s degree to do X job? Well, you know, if that’s what employers are asking for, then higher ed is going to respond and try to deliver it. Well, I think for us, it’s like, OK, well, that is the sorting mechanism for us. That’s how we can at least say there is some indication that you have a certain set of skills if you have a bachelor’s degree. But more and more, I think employers and others are starting to maybe question that a little bit.
Cheryl Oldham: And some employers are doing it, right? Or saying, “Look I don’t need a bachelor’s degree anymore. I just need to know that you’re able to do that that you have a set of skills that I need, the competencies that I’m looking for.” But then we need to have the assessments in order to assess that you have those skills. I mean, there are certainly so many issues involved here. And least of which is the fact that we have so many credentials now. Right? Sort of a proliferation of credentials in this country. And that certainly then becomes a whole other issue.
Cheryl Oldham: How do we know what is behind those credentials? How do we know that because you have credential X that you know and are able to do these things. I think we’re trying, at least on our end, to tackle this a little bit by really getting the employers educated themselves, giving them the strategies, giving them the tools to be very clear about this and to really articulate it. And then to partner with willing partners who will say, “OK, I will respond to what it is you’re telling me that you need. I will create the pathway. We’ll work together.” So, it’s sort of a win-win for everyone.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So tell me—the Work+EDU event is coming up. You’re going to have the opportunity to speak to leaders in education, in workforce, and in corporate learning. So, what will you be talking about?
Cheryl Oldham: I think, you know, there’s probably a little bit as we talked about today on the podcast. There’s probably a little bit that I could bring to the conversation, just based on a little bit of the experience that I have had. A little bit of sort of history in the Bush administration and with the Spellings Commission and the work that we did there. And sort of setting the stage for some of—a lot of what is happening in higher education now and in workforce. So maybe a little bit of history, a little bit of perspective there. But then really talking about why it’s so very important, in our opinion, that the employer community—that we are demand driven and employer led in a lot of this work. And that’s, I think, as I said earlier, that’s not always going to be possible. Or maybe not always welcome, or welcome news in some circles. But I think if we acknowledge that we don’t know what the future holds in terms of work. We need to be agile. We need to educate students, I think in a new and different way, in order to be able to be agile for a future of work. And I think ultimately the employer community and the higher ed community need to work together on this issue.
Cheryl Oldham: And I think, you know, it’s going to require leadership on both sides. There’s great, great opportunity for going forward. But I think the other thing is, we really need to look at how are we educating the most vulnerable, least well-served by our current systems of education across the pipeline. And so that’s just a real passion for us here at the chamber. And we partner with the civil rights community in a lot of areas around on these issues. And I think that’s something that I’d love to spend a little bit of time, maybe just a short bit of time, talking about at the conference, too. That we not lose sight of that really important population—low-income minority, disadvantaged populations.
Cheryl Oldham: So yeah, I’m looking forward to being there. And it’s a great agenda and a great group that you’re bringing together. So, I really appreciate your willingness to have the Chamber’s voice there.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. And thank you for being a part of Work+EDU. We are really looking forward to hearing you speak.
Cheryl Oldham: Great. Thank you so much. I’m looking forward to it, too.
This podcast episode is brought to you by work+EDU, an action-based event hosted by EdTech Times.
Join us in Boston June 20, 2018 to hear how educators and employers from the fastest growing industries are successfully bridging the gap between education and work. Together with speakers and attendees, you’ll brainstorm solutions for your own community.
If you’re interested in attending, speaking, or sponsoring, visit workandedu.com.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.